An Oprah Moment in Afghanistan?

Time magazine’s cover story of Bibi Aisha, an 18-year old girl whose nose and ears were cut off by relatives on orders from a Taliban commander after she fled abusive in-laws, graphically brings home the reality faced by Afghan and U.S. policymakers as Afghan reconciliation schemes move forward.

Afghans are increasingly concerned that basic freedoms accorded under the Afghan constitution, including rights of women to work, to education, and to free movement, will be sacrificed for the sake of political reconciliation between the Afghan government, the Taliban, and other political groups with long records of abuse and discrimination against women.

In June, Najla Ayubi and Samira Hamidi, women's rights leaders affiliated with the Open Society Foundations office in Afghanistan, visited Washington to raise concerns with Obama officials in the State Department and National Security Council, as well as Congressional staff and NGO representatives.  They voiced fears that political leaders would be increasingly inclined to compromise the freedoms accorded Afghan women for the sake of political deals.

Bibi Aisha's ordeal and other troubling reports make policy recommendations offered by Ayubi and Hamidi, in conjunction with the Afghan’s Women’s Network, all the more urgent.

Even if these recommendations are pursued by U.S. and Afghan officials to signal their commitment to women's rights, at what point do these rights get willingly traded for peace?   Can reconciliation be deemed successful if rights enshrined in the Afghan constitution are not applicable in some areas where local "justice" is brutally dispensed, women are confined to their homes, and girls are prevented from attending school?

Clearly, deep-seated attitudes must change along with legal norms. And one wonders how billions spent on development and security assistance are influencing such attitudes.

Last week, USAID launched the Afghanistan Media Development and Empowerment Project to expand "the availability of reliable information that allows Afghans to make informed choices about goods, services, their government and the future of Afghanistan."

The effort will fund Afghan media projects, including radio, television, and internet, and could potentially help change attitudes towards women's rights.  As noted in the Time article, a female-hosted talk show (unthinkable under Taliban rule), has been able to subtly introduce questions about women's rights.  Unfortunately, media proliferation can be a double-edged sword as evidenced by the backlash against women's shelters when a popular TV show implied they were foreign-run brothels.

As pointed out by Maria Abi-Habib in the Wall Street Journal, "the TV host wields considerable power in shaping the national debate here, and has been using it to rail against women's rights and foreign aid organizations."

If USAID wants to change attitudes in Afghanistan where pictures of Bibi Aisha and bogus TV exposés are plentiful, maybe it is time to ask whether Afghanistan needs a dose of someone like Oprah?

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